Why Hyperlocals Are Missing Out on Engagement

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“Engagement,” just about everyone agrees, is a must, especially for news websites, most especially hyperlocals.  But engagement metrics for news – even allowing for sometimes wildly conflicting numbers produced from different methodologies – are mostly grim.  The average Facebook user spends a half hour-plus on that paragon of digital engagement.  News sites get minutes that can be counted on one hand.  Taking into account murky Web analytics, only a fraction of that time – about three minutes for most hyperlocal news sites, according to Alexa – represents engagement where the site has captured the user’s undivided attention.

There were even grimmer numbers in the much-discussed September, 2010, American Journalism Review article “The Hazards of Hyperlocal” by Barbara Palser.  The nut graphs:

“According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 20 percent of American adults reported using digital tools to communicate with their neighbors or stay informed about community issues at least once in the past year. Only one in 10 reported reading a community blog at least once in the past year.

“Assuming Pew’s findings are reasonably accurate, the potential audience seeking neighborhood news in a given community would be roughly 20 percent of the population–including both frequent and infrequent users. Now consider the competition of multiple hyperlocal sites and bloggers, established community newspapers, and aggregators such as Topix.com and Outside.in. Not to mention other sources of local information such as online directories, event calendars and government sites. The math suggests a very stiff challenge.”

So is it hopeless for hyperlocals, especially those that want to have a real community impact – beyond, say, finding the best area Starbucks for Moca Coconut Frappucinos?  I say no – for two reasons.

Reason No. 1:

Palser conflated key numbers from the Pew study that turned it on its head.  Nowhere does the report say – in Palser’s paraphrase – “only 20 percent of American adults reported using digital tools to communicate with their neighbors or stay informed about community issues at least once in the past year” (emphasis added).

Here’s what the study actually says:

  • “22% of all adults (representing 28% of internet users) signed up to receive alerts about local issues (such as traffic, school events, weather warnings or crime alerts) via email or text messaging.
  • “20% of all adults (27% of internet users) used digital tools to talk to their neighbors and keep informed about community issues.”

It’s clear from the overall thrust of study that the author – research specialist Aaron Smith – views these numbers positively.  In fact, the title of his full report emphasizes: “One in five Americans use digital tools to communicate with neighbors and monitor community developments.”

“One-in-five” means that 20% of Americans are or have the potential to be highly engaged at the hyperlocal level.  At first glance, 20% may not sound like much.  But 20% engagement from a base representing all adult users of the Web represents what Pew, in another study – called “power users.”  From the study, which used Nielsen data:

“These people return more than 10 times per month to a given site and spend more than an hour there over that time. Among the top 25 sites, power users visiting at least 10 times make up an average of just 7% of total users, but that number ranged markedly, from as high as 18% (at CNN.com) to as low as 1% (at BingNews.com).”

Reason No. 2:

The two big “national” crises – health care and education – have their roots not in Washington, DC but locally – in doctors’ offices, hospitals and schools.  Health and K-12 spending totals about 21% of the U.S. gross development product.  Most of the dollars are spent locally, and many of the decisions driving that spending are made locally too (in those doctors’ offices, hospitals and schools).

Yet when you look at most hyperlocal sites you don’t see much being done to engage audiences that are waiting to be engaged, or presenting content that emphasizes the local roots of the biggest national crises.

It is encouraging to see SeeClickFix empowering citizens to flag community problems like potholes, missing pedestrian crossings and pollution spills in a creek, and stay on top of them until they’re fixed by the authorities.  More than 50,000 local issues have been resolved in 50 states through SeeClickFix-engaged citizens.

It’s also encouraging to see the Lawrence, KS, Journal World launch its WellCommons, “where community and journalism work together to create a healthier Lawrence and Douglas County.”  Through its engagement-conscious strategy, WellCommon has 131 health advocacy groups – everything from Locavores to “NoTrauma” (covering physical and emotional abuse as well as non-intentional injuries like vehicle crashes and other accidents) – that have attracted 2,612 members.  Nineteen groups contribute a post at least once every two days.

But we need SeeClickFixes that go beyond non-emergency 311-type issues – that face up to the challenges of local emergencies like K-12 schools that leave many minorities, as well as white students, poorly educated.

We need WellCommons that encourage the creation of community advocacy groups that are committed to helping improving health care and containing its rapidly rising costs – even if it means raising some local dust.

When that starts to happen, then we can all sit down together and enjoy our Moca Coconut Frappucinos.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column on Street Fight. He is editorial director of Local America, which is developing a website to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories, including K-12 schools, health and wellness, housing, fun and vision. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from Local Experts and users of the site.